Middle Israel: How the African-Israeli rapprochement is about poetic justice

Africa’s new leaders evidently have a new agenda.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chad President Idriss Déby (photo credit: GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Chad President Idriss Déby
(photo credit: GPO)
In the beginning the British had the Bible and the Africans had the land, said once Jomo Kenyatta, the father of modern Kenya. Then, he said, missionaries arrived, had the Africans close their eyes, and when they opened their eyes they saw the Africans had the Bible and the British had the land.
Fortunately for Israel, it had nothing to do with Africa’s abuse, and in fact was itself part of the great counter-colonial movement that freed millions from Europeans’ yoke.
Unfortunately, the development effort that young Israel launched throughout Africa was soon targeted by Arab governments, which set out to besmirch the Jewish state and blackmail its African friends.
The eviction project was grand, and its initial success was larger than any other effort to tarnish and besiege the Jewish state, an effort whose ultimate collapse – underscored by Chadian President Idriss Déby’s emergence in Jerusalem this week – should inspire anyone dispirited by today’s efforts to libel Israel and bully its friends.
REALIZING THE promise of the awakening continent, Israel established diplomatic ties with 35 African states, and sent more than 1,800 engineers, doctors, agronomists and industrialists to help build hospitals, infirmaries, farms, factories and houses from Zambia to Senegal.
Israelis built this way, for instance, a shipping company in Ghana, the grand Kilimanjaro Hotel in Tanzania, and an airport terminal in Entebbe, Uganda. At the same time, thousands of young Africans were brought to Israel to study electronics, nursing, education, carpentry, farm planning, and what not.
And yes, like all other defense producers, including all the superpowers, none of which was demonized, blackmailed or evicted for this – Israel also equipped and trained African armies.
Following all this bitterly and alarmed, Arab diplomats set out to derail Israel’s African project.
A pamphlet titled “Israel: The Enemy of Africa” (Cairo, 1965), which described the Jews as cheats, thieves and murderers, while quoting generously from antisemitic classics such as Henry Ford’s The International Jew, was distributed throughout Africa by then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s diplomats.
In the same spirit, an Egyptian diplomat named Saad al-Fatariri claimed in 1983 that Israel’s foreign aid to developing countries is part of a scheme to infiltrate the Arab world (quoted in Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites, p. 231).
The fear, frustration, and hallucination that such propaganda reflected were initially seen in Israel as harmless jokes, but in the 1970s the anti-Israeli campaign became lethal, as its masterminds discovered the power of oil and set out to threaten African leaders with economic whips, and to seduce them with financial gifts.
The pressure worked.
What began in 1972, when Ugandan leader Idi Amin, while visiting Libya, accepted Muammar Gaddafi’s offer of aid in return for evicting the Israeli Embassy, was followed by similarly heeded demands by Saudi King Faisal during an African tour of his own.
Five governments thus broke diplomatic ties with Israel prior to the Yom Kippur War and another 20 followed after it, leaving intact only three Israeli outposts in all of black Africa – in Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi.
It was a diplomatic tsunami, worse even than the East Bloc’s severance of ties in 1967, both because at stake was now an entire continent, and because Israel provoked none of the departing ambassadors’ governments, unlike the East Bloc, whose leader, the Soviet Union, Israel had humiliated by defeating its proxies and discrediting its arms in the Six Day War.
It took more than a decade, but the counterattack arrived, and ultimately bore fruit.
HAVING REALIZED that Arab aid promises were not being fulfilled, African governments allowed Israelis to continue doing business in the continent. While this happened commercially, geopolitically African governments realized the world was changing, first with the Israeli-Egyptian peace; then with oil prices plunging between 1980 and 1986 from $35 to $10 per barrel; and finally with the end of the Cold War.
Consequently, by the early 1990s most of the countries that had severed ties with Israel were returning their embassies to Tel Aviv, facing no effective Arab opposition.
The only ones lagging behind this trend were Muslim-majority lands: Chad, Niger and Mali, which straddle the Sahara to Libya’s south and west, and the Comoro Islands, which cluster between Madagascar and Mozambique; and Arab League member Mauritania, which actually established ties with Israel in 1999, but in 2010 severed them in the wake of Operation Cast Lead.
This week, even this last anti-Israeli belt cracked when President Déby visited Jerusalem in what will be followed by a reciprocal Israeli visit and a renewal of diplomatic ties.
The benefits of this far-flung restoration project are not merely about healthy ties with the world’s fastest-growing continental economy; a continent of hope where democracy is spreading, war is shrinking, jobs, incomes, and foreign investments are climbing, child mortality is dropping, telephone ownership rates are soaring, and high-school education last decade alone rose by more than 50%.
More than all this, the African-Israeli rapprochement is about poetic justice.
Gaddafi, the man who manipulated Chad to betray Israel only to later invade the same Chad, is not only gone; the general who defeated Gaddafi’s army on the battlefield is the man who this week said in a joint press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem: “We have a common struggle.”
And Idi Amin, the first African leader to join the gang-up on the Jewish state, is not only gone; the summit that Israel’s prime minister held in 2016 with the leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania took place not far from the palace from which Amin once showed African leaders how to abuse power, oppress the citizenry and betray the Jewish state.
Africa’s new leaders evidently have a different agenda; they want to sow, to plant, to build, to educate, to invest and to prosper. That’s why they happily acknowledge that the Israelis came to them in peace, and in peace they now return.